“I get quite stressed, anxious, and confused when I converse with someone that believes they are ‘right’ and I am ‘wrong’ about something. It feels like they have warped ideas and are unwilling to listen, no matter how illogical or unreasonable their thinking is. How should I deal with these people?”
Personal growth involves developing a clear perspective on what you believe, and what you don’t. What you see as right, and what you see as wrong. What you want from your life, and what you view as a waste of time.
All of this is about forming your identity.
But there is a secondary effect to having a clear identity. As you develop your sense of who you are, you’ll increasingly encounter people who disagree with your way of thinking.
These people simply become more obvious.
And with them, you may encounter more casual disagreements, clashes of worldviews, or even fundamental conflicts in core values.
Occasionally, you’ll encounter someone whose world-view is 180-degrees opposed to yours - who is adamant that their beliefs are completely right, and that your beliefs are entirely wrong.
They may even try hard to convince you of that fact.
I like to call these people “flat earthers.”
Dealing with “Flat-Earthers”
To our way of thinking, flat-earthers are just whacked. Their perspectives, whatever they may be, are so different from ours that it’s easy to feel frustrated, confused, confronted, and even angry.
You’ll probably want to “fix” them, and they’ll stubbornly resist.
But, everything about this situation is awesome.
#1 - Being challenged improves your understanding, and strengthens your identity
When your beliefs are challenged, you’re asked to prove them - and in proving them, you have the opportunity to revisit and improve your facts, your thinking, and the logic that together form your beliefs.
Even after you’ve done this 100 times, there is still more to learn.
Each time, your understanding and your ability to communicate your understanding are improved. Like forging a sword - the fire-testing, pounding, and folding make it stronger - and your identity strengthens in the same way.
Questions to reflect with...
- Is it possible that your perspective is flawed, and that their perspective has merit?
- Is it possible that you’re both wrong?
- Is it possible that you’re both right?
This last two I find particularly interesting, because in my experience they represent most real-world situations. Neither person is entirely right. Instead, two differing viewpoints are being competed, to create a third viewpoint that is nearest the truth.
Let’s take an Example...
There’s a long-standing debate on the relationship between cold weather and “catching a cold.” Some believe that cold weather weakens our immune systems - but there is in fact zero scientific evidence of this.
Yet, millennia of popular observation suggest differently.
"Wear a hat & scarf, or you’ll catch your death out there."
-- 1 million moms
So then which is the correct view?
It turns out, they’re both correct.
No, cold weather does not affect your immune system, or weaken your white blood cells or antibodies. But Yes, you are more likely to get sick when it’s cold out.
Outside of what we traditionally define as our “immune system” is a mechanical barrier that protects us - the mucus lining of our throat.
In cold weather, particularly when breathing cold, dry air, your mucus lining is easily compromised. It forms cracks and separations that expose you to the microbes that are already in your throat.
It happens that your throat is always full of germs that can make you sick- however you’re normally protected from them. This protection goes away when your mucus membrane is affected- which is why wearing a hat, scarf, face mask are all helpful in reducing your vulnerability.
See how that worked? Two incomplete viewpoints combined to form a third, which best reflects the truth we know today.
Learning is about changing and expanding your understanding of things. In that process, there is inherent conflict- the known v. the unknown. Truth v. fantasy. Provable v. the unprovable.
Always remember - once upon a time, all humans were flat-earthers, and the round-earth people were the weirdos.
How things change...
#2 - Being challenged improves your flexibility, and adaptability
There is an old rule in the art of fencing...
“Hold the sword like a bird in the hand. Not so tightly that you will crush it, and not so loosely that it will fly away.”
I encourage you to apply this concept equally to your beliefs, and even your identity.
It will happen - it must happen - that you will encounter people and situations which legitimately challenge your knowledge, beliefs, and understanding of the truth. In some cases, you may find them completely shattered.
When this happens, consider yourself incredibly fortunate - because it is through these experiences you will grow the most.
Always accept that in any contest of ideas, beliefs, and truth, that you may not come out unchanged - and that this is the best possible result. Change is essential to growth, and none of us knows everything.
( If this never happens to you, then you are living in an echo chamber, which means you cannot grow - see the Addendum for some notes on this. )
It’s so important that you don’t gloss over this crucial - but uncomfortable - fact, that I want to give a personal example.
When I was a kid, I grew up in the US, and was keenly interested in science, space, physics. I wanted to understand the universe, and how it worked. I was fascinated by the little wire models of our solar system in my classrooms that showed how the planets orbit the sun, and how their distances change. It all made sense to me, day, night, the tides, the weather, the seasons, they all emerged from these interactions.
I knew a lot more about these things than most people ever will, and I prided myself on that fact. It was a part of my identity.
Many years later, in my 20’s, I was running a business, and was meeting with a major client at a convention in Arizona. It was an exceptionally hot summer, 104 F, and we spent much of our time by the swimming pools chatting and making business plans. When the convention ended, we were all flying home and I stopped by the hotel lobby to wish my new buddy safe travels.
As he was checking out, I watched him deliberately put on 3 coats, including a stupendously massive fur coat. You could probably climb Everest in that thing, and feel warm.
I observed this with confusion.
“What are you doing? Aren’t you hot? It’s 104 F.”
He replied, “Yeah it’s hot here, but it will be freezing when I get off the plane in Argentina. This is one of our coldest winters on record.”
Ka-bloom... my brain exploded.
All my life, I had believed that summer and winter were caused by the change in the Earth’s distance from the sun. When Earth is nearer to the Sun, it’s warmer, and it’s summer- everywhere. When Earth is further away, it’s cooler, and the Earth is experiencing winter, everywhere.
It just made sense.
But I was so wrong. As you probably know, Earth’s seasons are opposite at all times between the northern and southern hemispheres. When it’s summer in New York, it’s winter in Sydney, Australia. This is because the seasons are not caused by the distance from the sun, but by the Earth’s angle of tilt, and the corresponding amount of sunlight each hemisphere receives each day.
For me, that experience was a holy crap moment.
Not only did it show me that a deeply held belief was entirely wrong, but it raised many other questions with it.
“What does that mean? What exactly is the right explanation for the seasons?”
“What else do I misunderstand about how the Universe works? If something this obvious was wrong, then there must be other things as well.”
“How did I come to that incorrect conclusion? Where was my reasoning wrong?”
For some moments, it was painful to discover how wrong I was, regarding a basic understanding that I saw as so fundamental to being a human, living on Earth...
But this experience was essentially important. It showed me that even things that I was certain of - things that seemed entirely obvious and unquestionable - might be wrong. Any of them might be, at any time, no matter how closely I guarded those beliefs.
I could never assume again, that I knew anything 100%. There always had to be the possibility of a tiny space for doubt.
It taught me the lesson of flexibility.
"Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow. Be like water."
- Bruce Lee
#3 - Being challenged improves your emotional resilience
What makes confrontations difficult is our emotional responses. When we’re resistant to change, or attached to “winning.” it’s easy for our emotions to get the best of us.
When this happens, we cannot grow.
Here are some tips.
- Don’t take things personally, this is about growth.
- Watch, and manage, your own emotional responses. If it becomes too much, simply redirect the conversation - “Hey, let’s pick this up another time.” Or, “Hey, you know what, I’m actually feeling really sensitive about this topic, can we talk about something else?” Or, “Now’s not a good time for me to debate this.”
- Make sure to show respect in how you present your beliefs, and how you respond to theirs. Demand the same level of respect from them.
- Make certain that the challenge process is benefitting everyone involved.
Always remember that is a discussion of perspectives. They don’t have to agree with yours, and you don’t have to agree with theirs.
Your mindset, at all times, is best served with as much internal honesty as possible...
“Sure, I could be wrong in my beliefs, and I will remain open to that possibility, including changing my beliefs if needed. But at the moment, I am not seeing any evidence of that.”
If you’re feeling especially emotional, you can learn some great things by reflecting on the debate afterwards.
“What is my need to be right based on?”
“What is the cost of being wrong?”
“Am I seeing to improve myself, or am I seeing validation?”
The real question to explore isn't "why do they think this way," or "how do I convince them", but rather "why do I feel uncomfortable about them thinking differently from me?
Humans have a desire to fit in, so don’t be surprised if underneath these emotions you might find some vestiges of people-pleasing or possible self-doubt ( could I possibly be wrong?? ).
Recognize this as a great opportunity to learn about yourself, and to grow.
#4 - Being challenged improves your communication skills
Being challenged also improves your ability to verbalize your deepest thoughts, and your debate skills.
This is a powerful ability.
In fact, the art of debate, contesting ideas in the pursuit of truth, is one of the central techniques used by scientists, scholars, and philosophers through the ages.
This process is responsible for most of the knowledge we take for granted today.
#5 - There is a lot to learn here about human nature
When I coach people, a lot of my work is about helping them to identify and unpack unhelpful, unsubstantiated, deeply-held beliefs that are holding them back. Every time I do this, I learn more about myself. How my brain works. Why I’m predisposed to certain behaviors, or resistant to others.
Humans are fascinating, and you can learn a lot about yourself by watching others, and reflecting on what motivates their behavior.
When I meet a “flat-earther” - a person who has extremely different, and even warped perceptions and understandings of reality, it reminds me of how powerful the brain is at constructing our realities.
When you encounter these types of people and situations, here are some insightful questions you can ask yourself-
- How defensive, and protective, is the other person about their beliefs? Why? Do you feel similarly protective of yours?
- Is this protectiveness about finding and sharing the truth, or is it about “being right?” Why?
- In this perspective, are you in the minority? If so, why do you think most people have the wrong perspective here?
- In this perspective, are you in the majority? If so, is it possible that you’re not challenging
- What role do cognitive biases play in this situation? Particularly the bandwagon effect?
Three Rules to Live By
Everything we’ve discussed above is about how intellectual debate benefits you, in every way. But it’s essential to approach a debate situation with an open mind, and a clear intention of why you are engaging in the debate.
Success depends on three fundamentals;
#1 - You are both willing to be challenged - and to discover that you are wrong
If you are not, debate cannot happen.
If you find yourself in this situation, you can simply exit the debate.
“Thanks for your opinions, but I’m not interested in a debate.”
Likewise, watch yourself carefully. If you are attached to the idea of proving that you’re right, or changing their mind, or “winning” anything, then you’re missing the point, and wasting your time.
With the exception of courtroom lawyers and maybe politicians, proving that you’re right is not actually helpful. Your goal isn’t to get anyone’s approval or validation- in fact, the best way to earn respect is to maintain a well-thought, respectful approach to the debate.
I’d go so far as to thank the person after, for the discussion- even if you feel like you “won” or “lost”, you both learned and grew.
#2 - You and your debate partner both have the emotional capacity to deal with the confronting emotions you’re feeling
Watch this carefully, it’s easy for emotions to escalate out of control, which will turn a good debate into a fight.
If you feel emotions going off the rails...
“I’m feeling a bit over sensitive to this. Let’s take a break and talk about something different.”
“I can see you’re reacting strongly, do you want to stop talking about this?”
#3 - Both of you understand, and practice, respect
Throughout the debate, manage the intensity, pace, and the topics and angles of the discussion mindfully.
You can lead the debate in new directions, or call a halt to it at any time, and your partner can do the same.
Look after yourself, and your partner equally.
Know when to “let it go.” Their warped perceptions are not your battle to fight. Just smile, think "wwwoooooow..." and let them believe whatever they want to believe.
Ultimately, they are responsible for their own head, their own rules, and their own reality.
The goal of discussion, argument, & confrontation is to improve both people involved. It is not about declaring a winner, or a loser.
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